Merrill’s Van Der Geest named one of seven KDDP racing finalists
BY TINA L. SCOTT
On Monday, April 10, 2023, then 18-year-old Levon Van Der Geest of Merrill, was selected as a finalist in the eighth annual Kulwicki Driver Development Program (KDDP), an honor that will help him get in the groove this racing season. It was an incredible birthday present for Van Der Geest, who turned 19 just seven days later.
Van Der Geest is studying automotive engineering at UW-Milwaukee, the alma mater of the infamous Alan Kulwicki–who went from local racer to college-educated engineer to 1992 NASCAR Cup Champion and 2019 Hall of Famer–and for whom the program is named.
Kulwicki, nicknamed “Special K” and the “Polish Prince,” was known for “doing things his way” and was a Wisconsin native who started out racing on local short tracks. In 1985, he drove to Charlotte to compete in NASCAR, and, when he got his first win at Phoenix in the Checker 500, during the cooldown lap, Kulwicki made a U-turn and drove around the track in the opposite direction, a move that became famously known as a “Polish victory lap.” He died in a plane crash in Tenn. in 1993.
Kulwicki drove car #7, so that number presents as a theme in the KDDP.
Seven finalists are selected each year, each of whom will represent KDDP during the upcoming racing season to help keep the memory of Kulwicki alive, while they also compete to win the Kulwicki Cup Championship.
Each finalist receives a stipend of $7,777 along with help with marketing and publicity, sponsor development, and opportunities for networking within the industry. The winner of the Kulwicki Cup Championship will earn 7 times that stipend–a whopping $54,439.
Van Der Geest is one of the youngest of the seven drivers selected from across the nation. The other drivers selected for the 2023 racing season hail from Maine, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin (another Wisconsin driver was also chosen) and range in age from 18-23 years old.
Van Der Geest made Milwaukee Mile history when he became the youngest driver to win the Midwest Truck Series race at the track in 2019. He then made a successful transition from trucks to super late models (SLM) and finished sixth in Midwest Tour standings in 2022.
But it’s not just their driving performances that land racers a spot on the KDDP. An advisory board also judges the applicants on how well they think candidates will represent the KDDP, helping to keep Kulwicki’s legacy alive.
This year 54 racers applied for the program, the list was trimmed to 15 semifinalists in February, and then the finalists were named in April.
The other six finalists selected for 2023 are: Riley Stenjem, 23, of Utica, Wis., 2021 Tundra Champion & race winner; Jackson Boone, 23, of Franklin, Tenn., third in 2022 Kulwicki Cup standings; Jacob Borst, 18, of Elon, N. Carolina, 2022 KDDP semifinalist; Max Cookson, 20, of Palmyra, Maine; Haeden Plybon, 19, of Spokane, Wash., fourth in 2022 KDDP; and Evan Shotko, 19, of Coopersville, Mich., 2022 KDDP runner-up.
Since the KDDP began, the Kulwicki estate has provided racers with more than $760,000 in funding, helping 38 drivers from 17 U.S. states and 2 Canadian provinces. Those racers racked up 1,105 starts, 178 wins, and top-5 finishes in more than half of their races. Three of the seven Kulwicki Cup Champions hailed from Wisconsin: Luke Fenhous of Wausau (2021), Alex Prunty of Lomira (2016), and Ty Majeski of Seymour (2015). Levon Van Der Geest hopes to add his name to that list.